God’s country? Red Hook street gets heavenly name

God’s country? Red Hook street gets heavenly name
Photo by Tom Callan

A Red Hook street just got a heavenly new name — and that’s the problem.

To honor seven dead 9-11 firefighters, a portion of Richards Street has been ceremonially renamed “Seven in Heaven Way” — prompting tributes to the heroes and complaints from critics who say that the government should not be in the business of advancing one religion’s notion of the afterlife.

“It’s improper for the city to endorse the view that heaven exists,” said David Silverman of American Atheists. “It links Christianity and heroism.”

Local atheists also insisted that public signs should be non-sectarian. “It falls under the umbrella of Church and state,” added Ken Bronstein of NYC Atheists.

The new street sign — which city officials hung last Saturday at Seabring Street — honors seven firemen assigned to Engine 202 and Ladder 101, who were killed after at the Twin Towers.

Teary-eyed widows, dozens of uniform-clad firemen and civic leaders paid respects outside the firehouse at the intersection, explaining the men were killed while pulling victims from burning rubble.

“They are heroes and should be rewarded in a place like heaven,” said Tom Miskel of Community Board 6, which unanimously supported the name change in December 2009.

“Almost every religion has some form of heaven,” he added. “It’s not just specific to Christianity.”

The “Seven in Heaven” firemen — Joseph Gullickson, Brian Cannizzaro, Salvatore Calabro, Thomas Kennedy, Patrick Byrne, Joseph Maffeo, and Terence McShane — were among the first firefighters called to the towers, making it there before the second airplane hit.

“They gave up everything to help — and that’s what sets them apart,” said Ralph Gullickson, Joseph’s brother.

It is unclear whether the firemen were all were religious, although most either attended Catholic school or had weddings at churches.

“The problem with the sign is that you’re assuming that you know what they felt deep down,” said Bronstein, pointing out another potential flaw with the street sign. “You’re assuming they even believed in heaven.”

More than 400 streets in the city have been named after 9-11 victims and heroes — cops, elevator mechanics and civic leaders among them — some of whom died helping people escape from the towers.

But few, if any, street names make such blatant faith-based references.

In Brooklyn, most street dedications — Ed Rogowsky Way in Park Slope, for example — pay respect by simply noting the honoree’s name, although petitioners get more creative when groups of honorees are involved.

In Red Hook, “Red Hook Happy Hookers Hook and Ladder” and “Red Hook Heroes Run” street dedications honor fallen firefighters without throwing God into the mix.

Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez (D–Sunset Park) — who sponsored the renaming — did not respond by press time to questions about rules regulating religious references on city signs or displays.

First Amendment caselaw suggests that government must allow both religious and non-religious speech when it opens a forum for expression — provided it’s clear that religious references are attributed to the individuals making the expression, not the government.

“The area of religion is so complex and nuanced that you could argue nearly anything,” said First Amendment lawyer Victor Kovner. “But a [legal] challenge in this case would be far-fetched.”

But agnostics and atheists disagree.

“It crosses the line,” Bronstein said.